Doctors Campaign for Asbestos Ban in India 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On July 21, 2003, a panel of doctors told journalists in New Delhi that a "silent killer" is destroying the health of workers throughout India. Dr T K Joshi, Head of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, Dr K J Nath, Head of the Institution of Public Health Engineers, Dr SK Dave, Head of the National Institute of Miners' Health, and lung specialist Dr SR Kamath criticized the "utter callousness of employers," the total lack of medical expertise and government inaction; all of which continued to put workers at risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases.

In the absence of national epidemiological studies, anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: "One activist claimed he had documented a thousand cases (of asbestos-related disease) in four months." According to the law, employees are entitled to compensation; unfortunately, the process of proving employment is so complex that fewer than 30 injured workers or their families have succeeded in obtaining compensation from medical boards of government insurance companies. Doctors were in no doubt that their colleagues were being told not to make diagnoses of asbestos poisoning. Dr Sudhakar Kamat, Former Head of Respiratory Medicine at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai said: "Doctors are under pressure to interpret X rays as TB or bronchitis or other chronic conditions." Without an accurate diagnosis, claims cannot succeed. The cases of Amrit Lal and Narayan Prasad Hiralal Mehra were presented. Lal worked in the mine in Udaipur, Mehra worked for the electricity company in Ahmedabad. Both men are now disabled from asbestos diseases; neither had received medical tests or compensation from their employers.

According to the doctors, the use of chrysotile (white asbestos) is a serious cause for concern: "(asbestos) dust may be inhaled while drilling a hole, cutting a pipe, repairing or renovating a building or demolishing it. A natural calamity like an earthquake could release deadly dust...There is no tolerance level, everything is harmful." India consumes about 125,000 tons of asbestos a year, most of it is imported from Canada and Russia and is destinted for use in roofing materials. There are thirty-two asbestos-cement plants in India which employ a total of 20,000 workers. Recent studies of workers in these factories found a growing incidence of lung cancer.

A phased-in ban was recommended as the most effective way to protect public health. Responding to the doctors' comments, representatives of the Indian asbestos-cement industry insisted their products were safe; the anti-asbestos sentiment was, they said, an act of "vilification by envious rivals in the steel industry and vested interests among NGOs... (our) products do not compromise safety or health." The industry has launched a media campaign to "increase awareness of the superior safety attributes of asbestos products over untested alternative materials." A "special feature," written by the asbestos industry, was published in the Indian Express on July 15, 2003. Readers were not made sufficiently aware that the full page article was industry propaganda and not scientific fact. The article maintained that chrysotile does not cause mesothelioma and does not lead to an increased risk of lung cancer in workers at asbestos-cement factories. Furthermore, the industry claimed "asbestos sheets are of non-toxic nature."

Although the Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley pledged in May, 2003 that "the Government is keeping a strict watch on the situation," it is clear that the continued use of asbestos is exacerbating the country's asbestos epidemic.


August 14, 2003



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